Our next pinch hitter is Mark Braff, who has the background to give an educated evaluation of a Yankee Stadium tradition: Old Timer’s Day.
Mark is a lifelong Yankees fan and the president of Braff Communications LLC, a public relations firm based in Fair Lawn, NJ. He counts among his greatest Yankee thrills seeing Mickey Mantle hit two home runs in the regular season game that followed the 1968 Old Timer’s Day event.
For more on that day, here’s Mark’s post.
On July 4, 1939, the Yankees honored their dying captain with Lou Gehrig Day. A crowd of nearly 62,000 watched as an assemblage of past and present Yankees paid tribute to Gehrig, whose words that day still resonate as “Baseball’s Gettysburg Address.”
Beyond Gehrig’s poignant remarks, the day is memorable for another reason as it is generally regarded as the catalyst for a Yankee Stadium tradition, Old Timer’s Day.
The first “official” Old Timer’s Day was held several years later, in 1946, and has continued as an annual celebration ever since. Other teams have held similar events over the years, but today the Yankees stand as one of the few that continue the tradition. That’s as it should be, since the history of the Yankee franchise is so deeply intertwined with the history of baseball itself.
There is just one problem. The Yankees are killing Old Timer’s Day.
Having attended every Old Timer’s Day since 1968, I have witnessed first-hand how the Yankees have slowly but inexorably scratched away at the luster of the event. Yes, it is still a special day at The Stadium, but there is no denying that it is a shell of what it once was, and the sad thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way — especially, and perhaps ironically, now that the Yankees are in their new home.
I remember being in awe at my very first Old Timer’s Day, when I entered the big ballpark and looked up at the Yankees’ World Series championship banners and American League pennants hung from the frieze (more commonly known as the “façade”). The banners stretched all the way from the 1923 flag in right field to the 1964 flag in left. I imagine that sight was as impressive to the Yankees players and the Old Timer’s in attendance as it was to me, a 12-year-old kid.
The Yankees-Twins game was preceded by a star-studded event that featured former Yankee players as well as those from opposing teams. From the opposing team alone there were – get this – 11 current and future Hall of Famers: Luke Appling, Bob Feller, Lefty Grove, Frankie Frisch, Pie Traynor, Joe Cronin, Goose Goslin, Early Wynn, Joe Medwick, Larry Doby and Roy Campanella. The Yankees were represented by the likes of Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, Earle Combs, Whitey Ford, Lefty Gomez, Phil Rizzuto and Waite Hoyt—Hall of Famers all.
I know these HOFers were there, not from memory, but by looking at the souvenir pamphlet, an inexpensive 11×17, one-color, folded keepsake that the Yankees gave to every fan in attendance. The souvenir reminds me that Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians entertained fans before the ceremonies began.
Unfortunately, Lombardo might as well have played Auld Lang Syne since Old Timer’s Day was on the verge of having its heartbeat stopped.
Here’s how it happened.
Somewhere along the line, in the 1980’s or so, the Yankees decided “we don’t want their kind” when it came to inviting players from opposing teams. Old Timer’s Day became a Yankee-only affair.
After moving into the renovated Yankee Stadium in 1976, the Yankees for a time hung a few select championship banners on the outfield fence during Old Timer’s Day, something they started doing during their two-year stint at Shea Stadium in 1974 and ’75. A short time later, the banners disappeared into the same netherworld as the opposing stars.
And, so, today we have an all-Yankee Old Timer’s Day featuring an inordinate number of old bench and role players along with some stars. And, of course, no banners.
Now, let me be clear in saying that I like Jim Mason, Phil Linz and players of their ilk as much as the next guy, and in fact have fond memories of their time in pinstripes. But, seriously, do we need 15 “Jim Masons” every year?
Things have gotten so bad that thousands of ticket-holders do not even bother to attend the Old Timer’s festivities, choosing instead to arrive in time to only witness the regular season game. It saddens me to see a half-empty ballpark staring back at the players as they are introduced.
It’s time to restore Yankee Stadium Old Timer’s Day to its rightful place as a premiere event; indeed, the largest gathering of Hall of Famers outside of Cooperstown. And here’s how:
First, now that the frieze (façade) is once again a signature element of Yankee Stadium, it’s time to haul out the banners for at least this one day every year. At this point, the American League pennants can be kept in storage since 27 World Champion flags should stretch nicely from right to left field. Imagine the sight!
Second, back when Old Timer’s Day was a big deal, every year had a theme, whether it was the 25th anniversary of this, the 40th anniversary of that, etc. For weeks leading up to the event, Yankee broadcasters would talk about the theme and mention that so-and-so “just accepted his invitation to attend this year’s event.” This would build for a few weeks; the list would grow and fans had something to get excited about. Today, the advance promotion is basically this: “July 19 is Old Timer’s Day. Come join us for this special occasion.” Pardon me for yawning. Let’s get back to having a theme.
Third, let’s acknowledge that there were great players on other teams and invite some of these stars to the event. How great would it be to see all-time Yankee opponents like Sandy Koufax, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, Boog Powell and the like emerging once again from the third base dugout at the “home office of baseball?” And, yes, let’s invite Bill Mazeroski back too.
These three simple steps would restore the grandeur to a Yankee tradition. The Yankees spent great treasure on building a new ballpark that evokes some of the signature elements of the original, pre-renovated Stadium. The easiest things to replicate are the ones they ignored: A few banners and the players – for and against — who gave the fans so many great moments and thrills over the years.
Oh, and one more thing: Is it asking too much to be given a cheap keepsake program?